Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Reluctantly Buying A Tour Into the Outback

As an American with summer vacations, the cool thing about Australia is that you can go enjoy the winter time June-August while Florida is an unbearable, humid, mosquito ridden hellhole. Florida is a great place to live as long as you can afford to leave. Winter in Australia is like a Floridian winter. Snow is rare and limited to the Blue Mountains, but the air is dry and the daytime weather is gorgeous. And in the Northern Territory, wintertime is the safe time to venture out into the Outback. In the summer, the rainy season floods the estuaries around the Northern coast and waters flood far inland. The waters recede as the dry season comes along, but humongous saltwater crocodiles get stuck in residual pools of water--sometimes miles from the shore of any river or ocean. A few days prior to our journey into the bush, some aborigines and wildlife officers had to remove a 4.5 meter crocodile from a residual water hole. That's about 20 feet. As the local authorities remove the marooned crocodiles, the tourists and campers journey in to the same pools of water to cool off. So while I say that it is annoying to have to hire a tour into the outback, there are reasons for them. An experienced guide can spot a saltwater crocodile, which will eat you, versus a freshie that will just sit on the shore sunning itself. Oh, and they point out snakes and spiders and all that as well, and cook and clean and drive and all that.

So while staying at a hostel in Darwin, I found myself sitting in the office looking at an album full of brochures for tours into Kakadu National Park and Livingstone National Park. The woman working in the office was manager and a local travel agent who insisted that nobody would let me venture anywhere on my own and that a "proper tour" was the only way to go. Sigh... Another tour. Another Australian selling tours. Tours of tours of people touring. So I'm looking through this album of brochures and photos, and I'm so bummed because all I see are these young, strapping Australian lads taking pasty Irish girls into the bush. I was already over the whole "young adults bonding" crap before I even began, yet I ended up choosing this Kakadu 4x4 Safari tour where we would camp and explore a rather vast area of wilderness for a few days. I was keen on the "aboriginal guide" that led us. I was told to be ready to leave at 6 am.

So I get up, and there are all these other kids from around the world waiting to be picked up for tours. One by one they get picked up. A Taiwanese kid goes off with some nineteen year old guy driving a huge bus and wearing no shirt. A Swiss kid goes off in some military-looking, desert trekking vehicle with yet another stereotypical, young poonhound tour guide. Then this guy shows up...

What the fuck? Score! My guide was "right out of the shed" as my friends from Adelaide would say. This dude had no shoes on. This dude had holes in his hat. This dude was gnarly looking. So by this point I had a tad more enthusiasm. At least this guy looked like a bushman who might have sheared sheep back in the day. Turns out, Pat, was much more a bushman than that. This guy's experience in the bush came from exterminating endemic water buffalo in a national effort to get rid of them all in order to sell meat to the U.S. Problem is, after turning hundreds of thousands of water buffalo into dog food or exotic steaks, the U.S. said no thanks.

After picking up about six or seven others, we drove a few hundred km into Kakadu National Park, stopping at the Adelaide River Inn to buy last minute supplies.

 Inside the Adelaide River Inn, they've got a stuffed water buffalo. Not just any water buffalo either... the one that was in Crocodile Dundee. He apparently did stunts and died of natural causes or some shit. Anyway, at this point I'm assuming that every Australian is embarrassed by that movie. So I ask Pat, "What do you think of that movie? I mean, all that 'that's not a knife' stuff and the zany antics of taking his outback skills to New York City?" Pat replies, "Oh, I thought it was okay. I mean, you have a bushman who meets a worldly woman from New York City, and by just being a good guy and practicing chivalry they fall in love. Just shows the rewards of being a gentleman no matter where you are." Fuck me! Astounded. The dude mulled that one over. Here I am expecting him to gag at the mentioning of the title, and instead I get this analysis that leads me to conjure up thoughts of this guy chewing a long piece of grass, watching the sun set over Darwin harbor and coming up with an original opinion. Not bad.

Of course, after hours of driving in a car full of young tourists, the day ended at a swimming hole. The one that you see in, again, Crocodile Dundee, when he spears a fish for Sue before being picked up by Wally. Geez, it's obvious I've watched those movies too many times. While Pat had endless amounts of information about the history of the area, the wildlife, the differences between fresh and saltwater crocodiles, all of which I'm finding fascinating, the rest of the group finds him to be too talkative and gradually branch off to "enjoy their vacation." Much of our conversation consists of comparing Australia to Florida, what dangerous things live there, what can kill you, what the swamps are like. Eventually, our discussion leads us to conclude that a Florida native who can find an alligator, identify the states four poisonous snakes, camp, make a fire, and tell which bodies of water are safe to swim in is essentially a bushman equivalent. 

What astounded me was the overall disregard for his vast amount of experience and knowledge of the area. I was nerding out, but perhaps the pale gals from Ireland were hoping for a strapping poonhound as opposed to a legitimate bushman. Basically, for the next four days, I'm talking shit with Pat about all things bush, Australia, aboriginal, while the rest of the crew swats at gnats and keeps to themselves. And, being that I like to cook, I'm the only one volunteering to help.

Kangaroo and bean burritos with apple and orange relish.

Swimming hole goanna.

This guy from Switzerland was pretty cool. He'd been traveling the world and had some cool videos from the 'Stan countries. I think his name was like, Urbann or something. 

Cane toad, invasive, poisonous species killing anything that tries to eat it. 

Much of a tour of the bush consists of walking a few km through the countryside, getting hot, stopping at a fresh water source, filling your canteen and swimming for a little while. Not bad. It's gorgeous out there. And the areas you swim and drink from are given the nod as safe by the experts. 

I remember there was a freshwater croc lying at the bottom of this swimming hole, but those aren't the dangerous ones. I swam in here and drank the water. That's what's funny. This is the only water to drink. No hoses or water fountains, just rain that has yet to evaporate. 

Taipan, second deadliest snake in Australia. Luckily, snakes that live in true wilderness such as the Northern Territory slither off when they hear you coming.
 Distant kangaroo

So while most of the tourists kept to themselves or walked away when he began to talk, Pat would tell these crazy stories, to whomever was listening, about life as a bushman. He didn't drink much anymore because of how much booze he consumed in his younger days. He told me, "It's horrible for the renal system, alcohol. When I worked in the bush, we slept in hammocks or laid our swags out by the fire. We had to order enough supplies, food and booze for a month at a time, as we were out in the middle of the wilderness killing water buffalo. I used to order an entire pallet of Bundaberg rum at a time, and another pallet of beer. And that was just my alcohol supply. My mates had their own. To keep our beer cold we used to put fertilizer in an eski (cooler) full of water. You'd get a chemical reaction that made the water really, really cold. Throw some beers in there, chill them, only took a minute, take them out, dip them in another bucket of water to wash off the chemicals--cold beer. They used to call me Psycho Pat. I was an angry young man, out here with the other bushman I'd do some crazy things drinking 500 ml of rum and go for more. 

When I asked him about the water buffalo he killed, he said there were two types of meat. "If we had to chase the buffalo down in our 4-wheel drives, we'd pull beside it, and we had this device that would clamp down around its horns to hold it still so we could shoot it. Or, we'd just jump on them and rope them to the ground, then shoot them. But killing them that way filled their meat with adrenalin, and we'd put them in one tractor trailer that kept the meat frozen for dog food. The other water buffalo we would sneak up and shoot, and try to get them right behind the ear so they'd drop dead on the spot. That meat had no chance for the adrenalin to run through, so that would be put in another trailer for sale to restaurants. Sold that at a higher price. Bloody good eating, water buffalo, if you kill'em right. Problem was, we came close to killing them off, but then the U.S. backed out of the deal, and I was out of the job..."

Somewhere, in this very British-Isle-originated-looking man was aboriginal blood, because Pat had access to aboriginal cave paintings, which requires some sort of license or authorization. 

The turtle in the above painting was painted before the last ice-age, during a normal period of global warming, where the oceans flooded up within a close distance to this rock shelter. Now, the ocean is over one hundred miles away from these paintings.
Layers of paint on this rock date back at least 40,000 years, but some argue that layers behind reach as far back as 60,000 or more. I don't know. I'm no expert. 

Of course, the finale of these trips involves something very familiar to a Florida native--feeding crocodiles. The main difference between the American alligator and the saltwater crocodile is that a saltwater crocodile is not scared of a human and will eat a human like it would anything else. The American alligator, when not fed by humans, will often avoid humans or just sort of watch them when they come near before swimming off. But to really get the tourists excited, our last day involved a crocodile feeding frenzy. Here is a pic of the horse meat used to lure them...

Much like in Florida, our guide hung meat from a string at the end of a stick and made the crocs jump for us... Here are some clips...

And, like, most tours, our drive home consisted of the tourist shops and photo opportunities near large magnetic termite mounds....
Just call me Teddy Roosevelt! 

As our group made its way out of Kakadu National Park and in between stops at Aboriginal art galleries (you know, make sure your mates get a chance to make some of the cut), our 4x4 came to a crossroads, and Pat recognized two women coming towards us. "How you goin'?" he asked. Sitting shotgun, I noticed as he and the ladies talked that there was a teenage boy in the back seat. After chatting for a minute or so, Pat waved goodbye and continued onward toward Darwin. "Crazy," he said, "the woman driving is me friend's ex-wife. One day she just told him she preferred women over men." 

"Man, that's crazy," I said. 

"Yeah, not an easy thing to hear, I reckon." 

"Not at all," I said. 

"Yeah, she took her son along as well. Now the kid is living with his mum and her partner. Me mate isn't happy about that either. Gotta sting him, I reckon."


"But," he sighed, "life is too short to live for anyone but yourself. Might hurt but..." 

And at that moment, a wave of elation came over me. He was right. Pat, the bushman, was fucking right. You can't live for anyone but you. And his statement really burned deep, because about two weeks prior to flying to Australia my girlfriend at the time told me she was into girls. Granted, she was dating a girl when I met her, but she dumped that girl and hooked up with me, and we were in love for quite some time. We'd had our run, no complaints, a good run, but things were changing. I mean, I knew on many nights with her that something was wrong, but I just waited because I think I felt I knew the answer. And it hurt when I had to hear that she was unable to stop thinking of being with women and was considering dating women. It was a heavy load to carry with me on the "break" we would take on our relationship. Conveniently, I was headed to Australia for six weeks and she to Vietnam and Singapore with her college program soon after she told me. 

And yet, it took a journey into the Outback, long walks through desert, relaxing dips in residing flood pools, some eerily similar Floridian reptile feeding and four days with a bushman I would never see again, to happen upon two lesbians out in the desert only to hear this bushman say something that, somewhere deep down inside I knew already but couldn't muster myself. My relationship would be over soon, and to many others it would seem like a brutally devastating reason as to why. But to me, it made perfect sense. What was her alternative anyway? 

Those few words of Pat's reflect the beauty of travel, that you've got to escape your routine to gain new perspectives. It's a shame too, that none of those other kids in our group got that one integral moment of perspective or philosophical insight as I did, but that's their problem. Good on ya, Pat. Those years out in the bush roping water buffalo had benefits most folks will never experience. Afterward, I flew to Adelaide to meet up with my friends, and meet new friends, and from some of them I would hear the "that's gotta fucking suck, mate" or the "you turned her gay?"But it was easy to shrug off. I mean, I was happy to help her and see her go on to pursue what she wanted in life. Wasn't I already doing the same? 

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